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Archive for September, 2008

Can you judge a writer — or anyone else, for that matter — by the books he reads, or even the books he just keeps at hand? There seems to be a slew of recent titles (if by “slew” you mean “two” — and I do) suggesting that yes, you can. 

Take this, from the latest such:

When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of ‘going out into the world without a single book’.”

Anyone care to venture a wild guess as to who was so horrified at the prospect of booklessness?

And since we’re on the topic, remember this?

our discussion of unread books offers a privileged opportunity for self-discovery, akin to that of autobiography, to those who know how to seize it…”

One wonders, considering these new book-length discussions of character via literature, how many volumes of the subjects’ respective libraries were ever truly read, and how many were planted there for the benefit of future biographers…

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So I see this thing I’ve got has been diagnosed…

Whoever dropped this off at the Salvation Army clearly didn’t have as serious a case of it as I’ve come down with. It doesn’t look like they even read it.

Still, as afflictions go, I’d rather have the one above than the one below:

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So this kid walks into a library and says to the librarian: “I’m looking to build a library of books to never get around to reading.”

And she hands him this.

(Although still, of course, it’s not like The Sorrows of Young Goddamn Werther are immediately gonna turn you genocidal. So, you know, easy on the Germans. Peter Handke’s not their fault…)

(I don’t know what that means.)

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sick of goodbyes

I apologize if it seems like this is turning into an obituary page, but they say these things come in threes, and number two arrived unwelcome the other day with the news that novelist Jim Crumley has died, at 68, after years of ill health.

He was born in Texas, like me, and lived for many years in Missoula, Montana. Not long after I moved to Missoula in 2002 and took a job as editor of the local alt-weekly, I got invited to a party at the house of a friend of a friend who loaned me this copy of Whores, which includes a previously unpublished piece called “Driving Around Houston,” which reminded me, as if I needed reminding, why I’d just left that town.

I never did return the book. Sorry dude.

Not long after that I met a writer named Nick Davis who became a good friend and pitched me a story on Crumley’s then-recent return to form from near death. I titled it “Wrote Hard, Put Away Wet.”

Return to form meant a couple of things for Crumley. It meant a return to writing, and he published The Right Madness, dedicated to a Missoula that treasured him, in 2006. It also meant a return to his usual haunts, and most anyone in Missoula — a writer-magnet by virtue of the University of Montana’s highly regarded MFA program — could tell you when and where to find Crumley holding court on a barstool: afternoons behind the unmarked door of Charlie B’s downtown, a little later in the evening down the road at The Depot. He liked good scotch, and he liked to play gruff and tell stories, and a lot of us liked to listen.

He came to my house once — the house I bought from that Nick Davis guy, Missoula being like that — when I invited him to a going-away party I was hosting for a mutual friend. I admit being proud of his presence at my place. He showed up with his beautiful wife Martha Elizabeth and walked in swinging a plastic grocery sack full of cans of Coors, which was apparently the only beer he ever drank, political correctness be damned. He almost knocked my buddy John S. Adams’ socks off when John realized who he’d been talking to all night. When someone asked him about his health scare a few years before, he said the doctors never had been able to tell exactly what was wrong with his heart, and until they could he was looking forward to resuming his relationships with booze and cocaine.

For most people, 68 might seem an untimely death. You got the distinct impression that Crumley packed his years more fully than most.

I’d read him in Texas, and I think it was The Mexican Tree Duck, or maybe Bordersnakes, that was set half in Montana and half in far west Texas, near Terlingua ghost town, where I got to live for about six months in the mid-1990s. He went to Missoula on a stint teaching, buddied up with locals like poet Richard Hugo and story writer Bill Kittredge, and made himself a fixture.

My favorite of his books — not that I’ve read them all — is The Last Good Kiss, which carries the jacket photo at right. It’s taken outside a bar near Ovando, Montana, called Trixie’s, where you can get a mean buffalo burger and shoot an unaffected game of pool. It was taken by a photographer named Lee Nye, who’s more famous in that neighborhood for the dozens and dozens of black-and-white portraits of old-school Montana working men that cover the walls of Charlie B’s like some sort of blue-collar Panopticon in reverse.

When I told Crumley I was moving to Austin to take a job at the Texas Observer, he told me to tell the truth and have fun doing it, a line he’d picked up from Observer mainstay Molly Ivins, a friend of his. I told him I’d try. I wish I’d gotten to see him again. I guess you always wish you could see them one more time.

I’ll end this one, like the last one, with a poem: Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” from which Crumley took a mood and a title:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.

Say your life broke down. The last good kiss

you had was years ago. You walk these streets

laid out by the insane, past hotels

that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try

of local drivers to accelerate their lives.

Only churches are kept up. The jail

turned 70 this year. The only prisoner

is always in, not knowing what he’s done…

Robert Frank

Robert Frank

And because the shit always arrives in triplicate: Rest in peace Cary Winscott, April 1 1970 – September 16, 2008, one of the most vibrantly, beautifully, crazily alive people I ever knew.

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Well that sucks.

David Foster Wallace, 46, hanged himself Friday.

He was a smart, sad, riotous writer who gave self-consciousness a language that actually sounded natural at the end of the weirdly denatured 20th century. You can see his brain at work here, or hear it here, or read it in anything he ever wrote. I admired the hell out of him, and like a lot of people I never even made it all the way through his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, which dovetails nicely enough with The Browser’s M.O. Truth be told I like his nonfiction better, which may be the journalist in me, or could just be an attention-span issue

But without wanting to horn in on the meant-more-to-me grief-fest that inevitably accompanies the untimely deaths of cult figures (remember Kurt Cobain — to whom Wallace bore a more bookish passing resemblance?), and having never met the guy, I did have some curious points of connection.

For instance: I, formerly a competitive junior tennis player, was reading Infinite Jest, much of which is set in an academy for tennis prodigies, when I met the woman who was to become my first and so far only wife. (Hi Clair.) We were at a weekend-long beach-house-based binge-drink, having arrived under separate cover, so to speak, and fell irrevocably and probably somewhat rudely in love there. She later told me she was impressed with my choice of reading material. We were both just precisely that pretentious at the time. Once I knew she liked me, I never did bother to finish the book, which, in fairness, and speaking as an editor, is about half again too long. I somehow never imagined, from that vantage, that Wallace was only six years older than me.

But before I put Infinite Jest aside, I stumbled across something that stunned me even more than the pyrotechnics of Wallace’s prose. It was this passage, regarding the tattoo obsession of detoxing lawyer Tiny Ewell, specifically as regards “one synthetic-narc-addicted kid” named Skull, “who’d been a walking exhibition of high-regret ink.”

On Skull’s back a half-m.-long skeleton in a black robe and cowl playing the violin in the wind on a crag with THE DEAD in maroon on a vertical gonfalonish banner unfurling below; on one biceps either an icepick or a mucronate dagger, and down both forearms a kind of St. Vitus’s dance of leather-winged dragons with the words — on both forearms — HOW DO YOU LIK YOUR BLUEYED BOY NOW MR DEATH!?, the typos of which, Tiny felt, only served to heighten Skull’s whole general tatt-gestalt’s intended effect, which Tiny presumed was primarily to repel.” (pg. 208, paperback)

Why, you might ask, did this particular passage, out of 1,079 heavily footnoted pages, make such a claim on my attention? Well, because in 1992, four years before Infinite Jest‘s publication, I had not only tattooed those same words on my arm, but the tattoo artist who did the job had in fact fucked up and inserted one of the very same typos. And I had written about it in Willamette Week, the alternative weekly of the town where I then lived, Portland, Oregon.

 

 

If you click on the facsimile above, you can learn that not only are the words secondhand (they’re from e.e. cummings’ poem “BUFFALO BILL’S”), but the very idea of having them tattooed on my biceps was a hand-me-down (from Southern-gothic novelist Harry Crews). So the reference was out there for the plucking, and surely the literary polymath David Foster Wallace was familiar with the line, via cummings, or with the line as a tattoo, via Crews, or both. But the line as a tattoo with typos? On a “walking exhibition of high-regret ink”?

Here’s part of what I had written:

The artist working on my arm has allowed me to choose music to listen to on the boombox in the corner. I’d started with Sly and the Family Stone to ease myself into the ordeal, and it had helped. But we were getting close to done, and I wanted something climactic and loud. I asked the photographer to plug in the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician. He hit Play. The tape was cued to “Sweat Loaf,” and the gently eerie child’s voice wafted into the room.

Daddy?

Yes, son.

What does regret mean?

Well, son, you know the funny thing about regret is it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done.

Oh, perfect.

At that moment, and I am not making this up, the artist leaned back and exhaled “Oh, shit.”

Oh shit indeed, thought I. “What!?!”

“I misspelled ‘blueeyed.’ I’ve never misspelled anything.” I looked down at my arm, and, sure enough, she’d left out the middle E. “Blueyed.” A typo on my arm.”

Blueyed minus its middle E, just like on Skull’s forearm. Weird, no?

Now I’m not suggesting for a second that David Foster Wallace read my story and pinched the typo bit, and if somehow he did I’d be nothing but honored. I feel certain he must’ve lifted it from Harry Crews, who had his version of the verse lettered beneath a large skull (Skull — get it?), and used his imagination to insert the typos (I especially appreciate “lik” for “like”) to help the tattoo better illustrate regret, which was the whole point of the passage, best I can tell.

But still, a story. 

Too bad he killed himself. That’s one thing you can never live to regret. 

Let’s let e.e. cummings ride this one out:

Buffalo Bill’s

defunct

     who used to 

     ride a watersmooth-silver

                                               stallion

and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

                                                                                 Jesus

he was a handsome man

                                       and what I want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

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Since I know everyone’s been waiting with — ahem — bated breath since I mentioned the arrival of Montana State English prof Greg Keeler’s new memoir Trash Fish a while back, thought I’d mention that the Missoula Independent published my review of same today. Check it out.

 

Book excerpt:

One of my earliest vivid memories is of Father standing out on a point of rocks on Lake Skaneateles in upstate New York, jumping up and down, screaming ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ I can’t remember if it was over faulty equipment, a lost fish, or life in general. All I remember is the ‘fuck’ part.”

Review sample:

Keeler identifies his ‘totemic spirit’ animal early on: a sucker-faced carp. By the end, few readers will find fault with the association. Keeler the character—especially the third-person version he retreats to when the going gets rough—is kind of a dick.

And that, strange as it may seem, turns out to be Trash Fish‘s saving grace.”

Whatever else one might think about the book, which definitely has its moments, mad props to any memoirist willing to write the words “I can’t remember.”

Executive summary? Quite funny as regards fishing; kinda icky when it comes to people.

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I’m a few days late with this, and it’s only marginally related to this blog’s area of interest, but my story on Denver’s Democratic National Convention is now in print and online at the Texas Observer. You can read it here. Thanks to Barbara Schlief for the photo.

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One of the best things about the work I do is that people and publishers send me books for review. A lot of what they send — like a lot of pretty much any cultural product you can imagine — is crap.

But some of it is unexpected treasure, like the labor of Lead Belly love at left, sent last week by author/researcher John Reynolds, a New York landscape artist and flower arranger who also just happens to have spent 50 years collecting the photos and memorabilia presented herein — everything from the first known photograph of Mr. Huddie Ledbetter to portraits of his huge 12-string Stella to his 1935 wedding certificate to a 1925 pardon letter from Texas Governor Pat Neff. Lead Belly — known in that context for reasons unclear as Walter Boyd — was in a Texas prison in Sugar Land, outside Houston, for killing one of his relatives over a woman. He later stabbed a man in Louisiana and earned another executive pardon from Angola. He must have been one charming motherfucker.

And man it’s a beautiful book, with an intro by Tom Waits, a bunch of insanely imaginative poems by Tyehimba Jess, facsimile handwritten and typed letters to and from the likes of Woody Guthrie and, obviously, a trove of rarely seen photos.

I had been unfamiliar with publisher Steidl, but I’ll be looking for their stuff from now on, especially since I see that they’re in the midst of a Robert Frank re-release project. I already had one of their books without having noticed who put it out: The Americans, which I bought new recently to replace the college-era paperback I seem to have lost somewhere along the way. I arrived at Frank through Jack Kerouac (who wrote the introduction to The Americans), and my Frank obsession has long outlived my wannabe Beat affectations. Steidl is reissuing pretty much everything Frank ever published, and I want it all, and I can’t afford it, and I feel too guilty to ask for review copies knowing I’ve got neither the expertise nor the venue to pretend I might actually review it. Thus, I suppose, do wish-lists grow.

I’ll never be able to make this transition work, but stick with me: During more or less the same time I was discovering Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank, I was getting interested in the underground comics of Robert Crumb (think of this as my mid-1980s crash course in the culture of the late 1960s). Crumb, it turned out, was not just a comics guy; he also had and has a lifelong jones — as a player and collector both — for vintage American music of the pre-war 20th century.

Crumb drew the portraits in his Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (that’s Tennessee bluesman Frank Stokes on the cover) in the 1980s, though this wasn’t published until 2006, and I bought it with a gift certificate last month at Austin’s MonkeyWrench Books, a volunteer-run collective named after Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, once published in an anniversary edition with illustrations by — yup — R. Crumb. I stole that one outright — just put it down my pants — from a Houston BookStop (note from legal: no I didn’t) during late high school, when my friend P.G. and I used to drive into town from the suburbs in one or another of our mothers’ cars and steal books (note from legal: no we didn’t). I don’t know where that copy is now, but I haven’t seen it in a long while, and I’d sure love to find another one. I’d even consider paying for it this time.

Crumb’s book, like the Lead Belly volume, came with a CD. In Crumb’s case, it’s 21 of the artist’s hand-picked faves, stuff like the Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ “Minglewood Blues” and the East Texas Serenaders’ “Mineola Rag” and the Parham-Pickett Apollo Syncopators’ “Mojo Strut.”

Lead Belly arrived with an apparently home-dubbed CD of Leadbelly — (the one word vs. two presentation is sorted out in the book) — playing at the University of Texas at Austin on June 15, 1949, his last live performance ever, about 6 months before his death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s got “Goodnight Irene,” “Skip to my Lou,” “I Don’t Want No More Army Life” and a nice version of “John Henry,” alongside another dozen tracks.

For some reason, Lead Belly isn’t included among Crumb’s 112 heroes of blues, jazz and country. Maybe Crumb calls him folk. He sounds more like a category killer to me.

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I’m sitting here, pacing inside, trying to absorb the idea that MittfuckingRomney and his straightgoddamnface are telling America that we need to vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin because the problem with the damn country is that we need to take back Washington from all the bleeding liberals that’ve been running the place for the last eight years.

That those very liberals — not the current administration, which has authorized and inaugurated broad domestic spying — are the government of Big Brother.

A man could cough up a lung trying to swallow that. I suppose we all know where Orwell is spinning.

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BOOKS WHAT GOT BOOKS ON EM:

The new one from Larry McMurtry. Like porn I haven’t seen yet.

 

Purchased in a New York bookshop that looked nothing like the one on the cover, after visiting a New York bookshop that looked exactly like the one on the cover. Jonathan Franzen is obviously a douche but I like a lot almost everything I’ve read of his, including The Corrections and these magazine pieces. If I did a post on my books of collected magazine pieces it would reach from here to the curb and back.

 

This book is for later in my life, when I’m willing to just totally cut loose and embrace full-on pretentiousness about the whole thing.

 

Handy, actually. And when you can pick up a 1,236-page Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature crisp in mylar for $8, which I use to could do at the Tremper’s Center Book Exchange in Missoula, Montana, after breakfast at Paul’s Pancake Parlour, why wouldn’t you?

 

Essays. And a beautiful damn paperback. Baker, if you ask me, is America’s foremost miner of meaning from minutia. There: that’s why you never ask me stuff.

 

And, of course, the book that started it all.

 

 

 

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